Harnett deputies’ conduct could bring big bills to taxpayers

In Harnett, death by Taser

In March 2011, Brandon Bethea died in the Harnett County jail after being shot three times with a Taser by detention officer John Clark. A state medical examiner ruled Bethea's death a homicide, but no one has been punished. This edited version, d
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In March 2011, Brandon Bethea died in the Harnett County jail after being shot three times with a Taser by detention officer John Clark. A state medical examiner ruled Bethea's death a homicide, but no one has been punished. This edited version, d

For months, Harnett County has opened up its sheriff’s office to scrutiny from federal investigators who want to know if deputies violated the civil rights of residents they were sworn to protect.

How long they will stay and what they will find is yet unknown. This much, however, seems likely: Taxpayers should expect some hefty bills in the coming years.

If the Department of Justice determines that the sheriff’s office has patterns or practices that led to constitutional violations, it will demand reforms. The county – through its taxpayers – will be forced to shoulder those costs.

“It’s really an onerous process,” said Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Public Policy who has studied federal civil rights investigations. “They can expect to pay a lot of money.”

For a sneak preview, Harnett County residents can look to communities such as Seattle or Ferguson, Mo., where taxpayers had to bear the cost of repairing a law enforcement agency that federal officials determined had violated the U.S. Constitution by subjecting residents to unreasonable search and seizure or excessive force.

Those communities have spent millions on hiring more supervisors, training officers on how to use force appropriately and computer programs designed to flag troublesome behavior of officers before it erupts into an violent incident.

In cities such as New Orleans and Ferguson, local leaders had to raise taxes to cover the unexpected costs. The costs linger for years, as the community must pay for independent monitors to ensure they are following the federal government’s mandates; the monitoring alone has cost some cities more than $1 million a year.

Jim Burgin, chairman of the Harnett County Board of Commissioners, said he’s eager to hear what’s ahead from federal authorities.

“Until we hear from the feds, we don’t know how to put a price on it,” Burgin said. “When they tell us, we’re going to say ‘Yes, sir’ and dive into it. But we just don’t know what it will look like.”

Another potentially expensive unknown for Harnett County: civil litigation brought by residents who say they were abused or harassed by deputies.

The costs could be jolting. The cause behind it, says commission candidate Suzanne Prince, will rub many residents the wrong way.

“As a taxpayer, I’m upset about this,” said Prince, a Democrat running for county commissioner in part because of her disappointment over problems at the sheriff’s office. “We can’t get better schools or new schools because we’re defending lawsuits? This should never have happened, but now that we know, we’ve got to own up to it and settle these obligations.”

Deadly force

In May, The News & Observer published a series, Deadly Force, that examined cases involving two unusual deaths involving officers, as well as the stories of several residents who say they were beaten or harassed by deputies.

The cases included the death of John Livingston, who was shot and killed last November by deputy Nicholas Kehagias. The deputy, investigating an assault that didn’t involve Livingston, entered his home without permission and ended up shooting Livingston after a 10-minute battle.

In the other case, The N&O acquired a surveillance video of a shackled inmate, Brandon Bethea, who died after being shocked with a Taser several times even though he had backed away to the corner of a cell; at the time, the sheriff’s office described his death as resulting from an “altercation” that prompted deputies to deploy a Taser.

The Department of Justice immediately announced an investigation into Livingston’s death. The Department’s Civil Rights Division has broad authority to make sure local and state police officers are not violating the Fourth Amendment rights regarding unwarranted searches and seizures. It also protects residents against police who use excessive force.

Since May, federal officials’ work has proceeded on two tracks: a criminal investigation into Kehagias’ actions and a civil inquiry into the department’s practices.

Investigators will examine whether Kehagias willfully violated Livingston’s civil rights by entering his home without permission or legal authority, a violation punishable with fines or imprisonment.

The civil part of the federal investigation could expand far beyond Kehagias’ hand in Livingston’s death. Investigators will look for anything that indicates the department engages in practices that routinely violate residents’ civil rights, or a lack of standards that would protect them.

Deputy Nicholas Kehagias and witness Clayton Carroll give their accounts of what happened the night of Nov. 15, when Kehagias shot and killed Carroll's friend, John Livingston.

Lawsuits to come

Since May, the sheriff’s department had provided more than 14,000 pages of documents to federal officials, Burgin said. The county has already paid roughly $100,000 to private lawyers to work with the attorneys at the Department of Justice and turn over the records they seek.

Though federal officials have been examining the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office for months, they have not officially opened an investigation. To do so, they would need to establish problems that extend beyond the death of John Livingston.

“I’m praying every day they come back and tell us this is an isolated incident,” Burgin said.

The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice has been aggressive during President Barack Obama’s administration. It has formally opened investigations into 23 law enforcement departments, more than twice as many as the previous administration. In six of those, the department concluded there were no constitutional violations. The others have resulted in some sort of court-mandated reform or are still ongoing.

Even if federal authorities do not force their civil authority over the department’s practices, their interest in criminal charges against one or more deputies could still be a problem for the county and its coffers.

Lawyers for Livingston’s family and several others who say they were harmed or harassed by Harnett deputies plan to file lawsuits against the sheriff’s office in federal court.

Though the county is insured, the policy covers up to $4 million for each claim of misconduct by law enforcement officers. Any judgments from expected civil lawsuits beyond that price tag will fall to the county to pay.

The policy has a catch: If the conduct alleged in a lawsuit was a crime, the company can refuse to cover the claim. If Kehagias is convicted of a civil rights violation, for example, the insurance carrier could refuse to pay anything toward a settlement of a civil judgment for Livingston’s family.

Locke: 919-829-8927 or @MandyLockeNews

During the Obama administration, Department of Justice investigators have been focusing on these issues during civil rights investigations:

▪ Use of Force: Are officers properly trained in how and when to use force such as Tasers, pepper spray and firearms?

Residents in Harnett County described to The N&O at least a half-dozen incidents involving several deputies using an excessive amount of force during an encounter.

▪ Early detection: Are supervisors reviewing arrest records and use of force reports to detect problem behavior before it gets more serious? Are complaints from residents being properly investigated?

The N&O found high concentrations of resisting a public officer charges filed by Deputy Nicholas Kehagias and a few of his colleagues; such charges are seen by veteran law enforcement officials as a red flag. Supervisors at the sheriff’s office had no system in place to review such arrest patterns. Some of the residents who complained to sheriff’s personnel said their claims were not taken seriously.

▪ Bias and racial profiling: Is there a disproportionate rate of stops and arrests within certain racial or ethnic groups?

Incident reports reviewed by The N&O had geographic and economic patterns rather than racial.

▪ Dealing with mental illness: Are officers properly trained in how to de-escalate emotions when responding to calls involving people with mental illnesses?

At least two of the violent incidents detailed by The N&O involved residents with mental health issues, including a Vietnam veteran who called 911 because he feared he might hurt himself. The department had no training for deputies in dealing with these situations.

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